If We Can’t Change the Law, We’ll Break It

Resisting the Tory protest crackdown may require ever greater acts of civil disobedience.

by Rivkah Brown

16 March 2021

Protest following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in London
Demonstrators outside New Scotland Yard on 15 March. (REUTERS/Henry Nicholls)

On 17 September 1961, the Committee of 100 – a pillar of the British anti-war movement, whose members included CND co-founder Pat Arrowsmith and philosopher Bertrand Russell – planned their biggest action to date. The action would have two parts: the first, a blockade of the pierheads at Holy Loch, near Glasgow, where American nuclear submarines were due to be stationed; the second, a protest in Trafalgar Square. The police struck preemptively. A week before the protest, the 100 committee members were summoned to court for inciting breaches of the peace; Russell was sentenced to a week in prison. The police’s tactics backfired.

15,000 people converged on Trafalgar Square on the 17th, despite the invocation of the Public Order Act making it a crime to protest for 24 hours. “I went on that [demo] because it had been banned,” said committee member Diana Shelley. “It was a civil liberties issue for me.” Police brutalised protesters; Labour MP Tony Greenwood described to the Commons how “women and girls were dragged head downwards across the paving stones and slammed down in the gutters”. 1,314 protesters were arrested. One of them, Dennis Gould, recalls the Evening Standard front page: “London, a police state”.

Those following the events of the past week may have a sense of history repeating itself. After being told by police that their vigil for Sarah Everard was unlawful and that, if it went ahead, they risked hefty fines, Reclaim These Streets took their case to the High Court. A judge refused to get involved in the dispute, but said there may be “further communication” between the women’s rights group and the Met. But the police refused, holding their line that the protest “could be unlawful” and telling organisers to stay home. The women did as they were told. Others did not.

For the past year, the Conservatives have been cracking down on protest under cover of coronavirus. The public has mostly acquiesced: according to a poll conducted by YouGov over Sunday and Monday, 59% believe that protests, vigils or marches shouldn’t be permitted during the pandemic. Yet as the public health crisis has drawn to a close, the government has given up pretending.

The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday night, makes little mention of coronavirus. Instead, it seeks to make the temporary restrictions it necessitated permanent. “What these measures do … is retain those safeguards [and] introduce further restrictions on peaceful assembly that will outlast the pandemic,” says Jolyon Maugham QC, founder of the Good Law Project. “The right to protest will be curtailed for all time and in quite extreme ways, without the justification of the need to protect public health.”

The bill, which enables police to shut down events likely to cause even “serious annoyance”, will “neuter” the right to protest, says Maugham. Yet this weekend, this year and much of British history proves that transformative societal change often occurs outside of the law; in fact, it usually requires civil disobedience.

While Reclaim These Streets was holding a virtual vigil and fundraising for women’s charities, Sisters Uncut was reclaiming these streets. Refusing to cow to police intimidation, the direct action group, which is led by women of colour, called back on the Clapham vigil that the other group had called off earlier that day. “Cancelling protests at short notice is a really dangerous thing,” says Yasmin*, a Sisters Uncut organiser. “People will just show up, but less prepared. That’s why we stepped in.” When police violence ensued, the group refused to back down.

Forgoing formalities – they did not give the police advance notice, as they are legally required to – they mobilised rapidly, organising a second mass gathering within 24 hours of the first. “We needed another protest, and we needed to bring it to them [the police] directly,” says Yasmin. Hundreds met at New Scotland Yard on Sunday. They reconvened on Monday, then again today; should the bill continue its progress through parliament, further protests are highly likely.

The contrasting approaches of Reclaim These Streets and Sisters Uncut reflect the groups’ divergent politics. “There’s a long history of conflict between radical and liberal politics, be it feminism or antiracism,” says Adam Elliot-Cooper, sociology researcher at the University of Greenwich. “The liberal approach often relies on state institutions to challenge injustice; the radical relies on grassroots movements, on ordinary people power.”

“The people who called this protest were quite liberal in their approach,” Elliot-Cooper adds, “they didn’t seek to challenge the legitimacy or power of the police or systems of government.” On Monday, Reclaim These Streets organiser and Labour councillor Anna Birley resisted calls for Met police chief Cressida Dick to resign, saying: “She’s one of the most senior women in British history.”

Those who organised this weekend’s protests accept that resisting an unjust law might require breaking the law. “People are up for taking more risks to make their point,” says Yasmin, “to confront the police force and the state.” These radical groups have spent years, and particularly the last year, developing the kind of protection for protesters that the state denies them.

Green & Black Cross (GBC) is the best-known of these groups. Founded in response to the 2010 student movement, its services include a 24/7 protest helpline and post-arrest support. In an increasingly inhospitable legal environment, groups like GBC have proliferated. In May 2020, on the eve of the antiracist protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Black barrister Ife Thompson set up Black Protest Legal Support (BPLS) to provide legal observation at protests where Black and brown people are in danger; its volunteer network of barristers and solicitors now numbers 250. BPLS chair Zehrah Hasan foresees that, as police brutality towards Black and brown protesters continues to escalate, so will demand for the group’s services.

What is notable about this weekend’s protests was that, despite attempts to attribute them to the “radical left”, they attracted remarkably broad support. Speaking to protesters on Sunday, it was clear they came from a variety of political traditions; many were first-time protesters. What this reflects is a public politicised by recent events: not just the police’s mishandling of Sarah’s murder, but politicians’ mishandling of the pandemic.

The combined effect of plummeting trust in government and the expansion of police violence beyond typically targeted groups has created a historically broad coalition against the state and its enforcers. “It does feel to me like we’re on a real journey, as a country and a democracy,” says Maugham. “I suspect we’re all going to have to revisit what we see as being the boundaries of legitimate responses to autocratic government.”

Maugham identifies himself among those whose relationship to the state has shifted in recent years. A tax lawyer by trade, the Good Law Project he founded in 2017 litigates in the public interest. Nowadays, Maugham says he finds himself guided less by what is legal than by what is right. “To be honest, one of the reasons why I left the Bar was to give myself more freedom to act as my conscience demands, rather than as my profession would. … I’m positioning myself for a world in which I might decide that I felt that the right thing for me to do was to break the law.”

Many have read the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as the mark of a government drunk on power, emboldened by parliamentary arithmetic and pandemic-induced passivity. Yet while it’s true that an 80-seat majority makes the bill’s passing almost inevitable, this isn’t the whole truth. Even to an authoritarian government, increasingly organised antiracist and climate movements represent a serious threat, one Sarah Everard’s murder has tripled. The overconfidence of this bill is spiked with fear.

With the bill now headed to committee stage, amendments may do damage control. This seems a serious possibility, given the material effect the public outcry has already had on both of the two main parties: on Sunday, Labour’s U-turned on the bill, whipping to oppose rather than abstain; later that day, Priti Patel ordered an investigation into the Met’s policing of Saturday’s vigil, an intervention that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Even if the bill survives a third reading, its path through the upper house is far from clear.

If the bill goes to the Lords, and Keir Starmer holds his nerve, Labour could rally enough of its own peers, right-thinking Lib Dems and libertarian Tories for a parliamentary ping-pong match that may eventually exhaust the government. In other words, the bill is not a done deal – but should it become law, a growing number of people will be prepared to break it in order to defend their freedom.

*Not her real name.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media. She is also the editor of Vashti.

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